Ludwig Van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Baptized December 17, 1770 in Bonn, Germany.
Died March 26, 1827 in Vienna, Austria.

Beethoven portrait by Joseph Mahler 1815

Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92

Composed: 1811-1812.
First Performance: December 8, 1813 at Vienna with Beethoven conducting.
Instrumentation, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 timpani, and strings.
Duration: ~40 min.

The significance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony played on tonight’s program alongside the “1812 Overture” is not to be underestimated.  Although sketches for Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 date from late 1811 while staying in Teplitz (near Prague), it was completed on April 13, 1812; so tonight we celebrate the 200th Anniversary of its composition.  We also celebrate the 200th Anniversary of the War of 1812, depicted so popularly in Tchaikovsky’s famous Overture that ends this evening’s concert. And yet there is another link to battles and soldiers that ties these two well-loved compositions together.

Beethoven’s friend Johann Mälzel (1772 – 1838), who was the P.T. Barnum of his day, is remembered today as an inventor of the metronome. He invented various musical automatons, including a trumpeter and a “panharmonicon” which simulated a military band playing on instruments with the sound and movements provided through an ingenious system of bellows and reeds. Following The Duke of Wellington‘s victory over Napoleon’s brother Joseph  at the Battle of Vitoria, Spain, in June of 1813, Mälzel asked Beethoven to write a piece commemorating the Victory which could be played by his contraption. Beethoven did write the piece but it was too complicated for Mälzel’s machine.

In October 1813, Beethoven re-orchestrated the work and renamed it Wellington’s Victory, or, the Battle of Vitoria, Op. 91. Mälzel organized a December 1813 concert “for the benefit of Austrian and Bavarian soldiers disabled at the battle of Hanau.” The program included a march by Dussek and another by Pleyel that were played by Mälzel’s trumpeter. Beethoven’s Wellington’s Victory and Symphony No. 7 both received their pre­mières on that concert. Many famous and not-yet famous musicians, such as Salieri, Hummel, Meyerbeer, and Dragonetti, performed on this concert out of patriotic duty.

There are four movements:

I. Poco sostenuto – Vivace
II. Allegretto
III. Presto – Assai meno presto (trio)
IV. Allegro con brio

As in Beethoven’s symphonies 1, 2 and 4, this symphony begins with a slow introduction (poco sostenuto) in A major. Its length is almost as long as many entire first movements by Beethoven! The main part of the movement, still in A major, has the flutes presenting the three note rhythmic cell  that dominates the rest of the movement. The movement is in sonata allegro form, but because the second theme relies so much on this rhythmic cell, as does the first theme, it might appear that they are the same. In addition to his use of rhythm, Beethoven is adventurous in his key scheme which begins so solidly in A major. Already in the introduction, he takes us to the very remote keys of C and F – neither of which are in the A major scale! In fact, the introduction does not introduce “themes” as much as it introduces the key scheme – C being up a third from the home A and F being down a third. So, we will see that these foreign keys are not confined to just this movement, but throughout the symphony. Beethoven was fond of ostinato (the repetition over and over of a musical line, usually in a lower voice), and uses it to great effect in the low horn in the transitions back to the principal theme in the Third Movement (Presto). However, the bass lines in the coda, which continually wraps around themselves, caused Carl Maria von Weber to comment that Beethoven was “ripe for the madhouse.” The first movement ends with two hammer blows of A Major chords that follow a full-throated orchestral declamation of the dotted rhythm motif.

From solid A Major, we are plunged immediately into A minor. In place of the usual slow movement, Beethoven marked the second movement Allegretto. His sketches show that he originally marked it andante, but he decided that it needed to be faster. This famous movement starts with a sustained second inversion A minor chord in the winds which fades away, leading to the lower strings softly playing the dactylic (long, short, short) rhythm which permeates the entire movement. The orchestration thickens an instrument at a time while the violas and ‘celli play a long yearning phrase over the incessant pulse. This movement was so well received at the pre­mière that it had to be immediately performed again. Recently, it was the music played in the background to the climactic speech in the movie The King’s Speech.
The movement ends with the sounding of the same A minor chord that opened the movement, leaving the impression of the music starting all over again like a gentle tide lapping against the shore.

The third movement (Presto) is a combination of a scherzo in the remote key of F major and a slower trio in D major. These forms return twice, each slightly truncated from the last, but making the overall form ABABA, (where A is the scherzo and B is the trio).  This was the plan that Beethoven favored in many of his middle period scherzi. Just when the final statement of the slower trio appears again and we feel we may not survive yet another repeat of the same material, Beethoven punches his way out of the movement with a hearty laugh of five sharp chords.  Beethoven’s friend, composer and musicologist Abbé Stadler (1748-1833), pointed out a similarity between the trio and a Lower Austrian Pilgrims’ hymn that Beethoven possibly heard (before going deaf of course!) during one of his many visits to Teplitz.

The Finale greets the listener as if they had opened the door to a blast furnace, and picks up where the scherzo left off; Beethoven immediately proceeds to turn it up to 11.  The two mighty whacks which open the movement leave no doubt that we are back in A major.  In the development we are once again led to the remote keys of C and F, but which now seem familiar. Once again the rhythmic vitality of the the two themes comes to the foreground. The entire movement unleashes a relentless energy that can only be Beethoven’s, as the orchestra whirls to a climactic finish. One of many wonderful passages occurs right before the coda: while a fragment of the main theme is being tossed among the strings, we hear the basses grind away on the dominant E for what seems an eternity, so that when the full-throated coda finally erupts, the effect is palpable. This moment culminates in a dynamic marking of fff (f=loud, ff=very loud), a marking that Beethoven rarely employed, not even in his titanic Ninth Symphony.  Donald Francis Tovey described the finale as being  “a triumph of Bacchic fury.”

To Richard Wagner, this Symphony was “the apotheosis of the dance”. Indeed, it has not escaped the attention of choreographers. Isadora Duncan performed the last three movements at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1908 and the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo has performed the complete work. Conductor Thomas Beecham had a different sort of dance in mind when he said “What can you do with it? It’s like a lot of yaks jumping about.”

Resources

Public domain score.

Graphic score video of the second movement.

Carlos Kleiber YouTube playlist.

Carlos Kleiber I, part 1

Kleiber I, part 2 (YouTube has a time limit)

Kleiber II

Kleiber III

Kleiber IV